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The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussein with Ayisha Malik

Secretlivesoftheamirsisters.jpgThe four Amir sisters Fatima, Farah, Bubblee and Mae are the only young Muslims in the quaint English village of Wyvernage.

On the outside, despite not quite fitting in with their neighbours, the Amirs are happy. But on the inside, each sister is secretly struggling.

Fatima is trying to find out who she really is and after fifteen attempts, finally pass her driving test. Farah is happy being a wife but longs to be a mother. Bubblee is determined to be an artist in London, away from family tradition, and Mae is coping with burgeoning Youtube stardom.

Yet when family tragedy strikes, it brings the Amir sisters closer together and forces them to learn more about life, love, faith and each other than they ever thought possible.
Let’s be bluntly honest about this; I didn’t pick this book up on its own merits. The genre it is part of is of no real interest to me, and while I admire Nadiya and her baking and indeed personality, that wouldn’t normally be enough to make me pick up a family saga. But then, Jenny Colgan wrote a review of the book for the Guardian. A review that manages to be sneering, superior, racist, misogynistic, snobbish, and damaging to the project of getting more people reading. And so enters my motivation for reading this: spite. Straightforward, simple spite to Jenny Colgan and the Guardian. So, what did spite get me…?

In essence, it got me a perfectly cromulent novel. The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters, written by Nadiya Hussein (with, as the title page states quite openly, Ayisha Malik – no hidden-as-if-shameful cowriter here!), is a domestic family saga, a story of one family unravelling in the face of tragedy and revelations that come out of tragedy, before coming back together again; threads in the tapestry being pulled unto unravelling, before being woven into a new, fresh, but still the same form as before. It’s not a new story, although it is a new permutation, bringing together several elements that we’ve seen before to create, not something novel, but something familiar yet subtly different by the combination of the elements. The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters inevitably follows four interlocking stories, which at times intersect in ways that feel far more forced than natural, bringing together a number of different elements under a single theme: discovering your family and your place in the world; it is essentially a coming of age story, which is quite the feat to pull off well (as it does) with protagonists who are largely adults.

This is really a character study, or set thereof; primarily of the titular Amir sisters, but also of the rest of the family, and some of the friends adjacent to it – the focus is tightly on the four characters who are our narrators and guides, but wide enough to never be claustrophobic, and the way those four and their different, peculiar insights appear allow us a far greater insight into the other characters of the book, other sisters included, than any single narrator likely would. That each chapter is headed with the name of the sister who narrates it is stunningly unnecessary; they’re each wholly distinctive characters, with not only different interests, but different voices, different takes on the family, different observations, etc. The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters does rely a little too heavily on them all coming together at the end and being of one mind, and of their differences being complementary at the crucial moment, but it’s well written enough to carry that off, even through the slight strain of credulity.

There are some niggles, though; the first is a truly minor one, but an easy fix: if you’re going to include a Tweet in your book, the simplest thing in the world is to count how many characters it is. Instead, there is a tweet that is around 200 characters – a minor niggle but enough to throw me out, and egregious enough an extension that it actually caught my eye. A rather larger problem in The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is that it queer-baits, intentionally or otherwise. One of the sisters, Bubblee, is living an independent life in London, with her “close friend” Sasha, who she models naked, who will drop everything and rush to Bubblee if she needs it when she has to return to family… but they’re just friends. While seeing female friendship in a novel is powerful, this is a novel full of it, and every expression of this particular relationship reads as queer-coded without being made explicitly so.

However, I’m going to engage directly with Colgan’s criticism of the book, now (not of its existence; Joanne Harris did that fantastically). Apparently, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters‘s “main thrust, overall, is that big noisy religious families are all more or less the same”, and that this “didn’t add much for this Irish/Italian Catholic [that is, Jenny Colgan].” Not only is this a misreading of the book, it’s a misapprehension of what the book is about; this isn’t a book about “big noisy religious families”, it’s about a specific big noisy religious family, and its internal dynamics. If it feels familiar to one because of one’s own family dynamics, that’s not a failure, that’s a success in the writing; this isn’t about writing The Other for a white gaze, which is why we don’t get long spiels about (for instance) exactly how curry is made, it’s about life as it is lived, which is a whole other thing. I really enjoyed the portrayal of a family different from my own (small, nonreligious) one; it was engagingly written but not didactic, not seeking to educate me about The (Muslim, Brown) Other, just seeking to be a novel, to engage with the reader on that level.

In the end, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a perfectly cromulent novel. Nadiya Hussein isn’t going to set the literary world aflame with this book, but might give something to that girl sitting in the library and the kitchen, especially (but by no means only) if she’s wearing a headscarf.

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